Celebrate Brooklyn’s Executive Producer Told Us About New Venue

As we briefly mentioned in our venue news roundup last week, the team behind Celebrate Brooklyn opened BRIC House at the beginning of October. We interviewed Jack Walsh, Celebrate Brooklyn’s executive producer, about the new space.

The project to renovate the old Strand Theatre cost around $35million and was funded by the city. It sounds like a lot, but how far does that kind of money go, did funds end up being tight?

This renovation reclaimed 40,000 square foot of unused space in the building to create a café and public lobby, large contemporary art gallery, new glass-walled TV studio,artist studio for small performances, rehearsals and residencies; and the Ballroom, a flexible performance space with multiple configurations including 440 capacity for standing music concerts, and 240 capacity for seated music, dance and theater performances. It was a real transformation of the building that opened up the inside of the building at the street level to draw people into the building, and was all done very thoughtfully out of consideration for BRIC’s needs. To that end, BRIC has contributed funds to augment what the City scope covered and will continue to fundraise for some additional outfitting.

When our readers think of Celebrate Brooklyn, they will most likely think of the summer concerts you put on in Prospect Park (see our footage of Dan Deacon this summer). Aside from those, what else does BRIC offer that we might be interested in but unaware of?

We hear this a lot! It’s part of why we’re so excited to finally have our programs under one roof at BRIC House. BRIC is a 35-year old organization with a history of creating accessible programs and work with performing and visual artists, as well as media makers. Many people know BRIC as the public access organization for Brooklyn – since 1988, we have provided access to television along with training and equipment for Brooklyn residents who want to express themselves on television. Today, we work with more than 1,000 community producers. BRIC is also the home to the longest-running contemporary art exhibition program in the borough – we’ve been displaying the work of Brooklyn artists in various venues since our program was established in 1981. Our Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival will continue every summer at the Prospect Park Bandshell.

BRIC always put on an eclectic schedule of events throughout the summer that seems to offer something for everyone, what kind of shows can we expect to see at BRIC house?

We hope to bring the eclectic sensibility of Celebrate Brooklyn! indoors with a varied mix of emerging and established artists from Brooklyn and beyond. Always with an eye towards the diverse Brooklyn population and their expansive tastes. Hopefully people will come to see artists they know and love, and artists they might be curious about and discover at BRIC House.

Will they be all ages, 21+ or a mix?

Currently, all public programs at BRIC House are for all ages.

How does your approach change now that you have a dedicated year-round space?

Programmatically, we are collaborating across disciplines more than ever. For example, we are doing multi-camera HD video of many of the music concerts for air on our cable channels, and we are planning a spring season including a contemporary art exhibition featuring artists whose work is defined by music in some way, and conversely, we are programming music concerts by performers who have somehow crossed over into visual art practice.

With art galleries and space for artists, will any of their work find its way into the ballroom or is each facility kept apart? Tell us a little bit about the performance space.

Though not exclusively, we are working on projects that cross boundaries and artistic disciplines. In some cases, the spaces will be used for their primary purpose, but in others you will see programming that blurs those lines dramatically in the use of the spaces. For example, in the upcoming residency and performances of “WOW”, which is an opera that uses the tragic story of ‘80s lip-syncers Milli Vanill as a jumping-off point, the artists will use the TV studio as a faux recording studio, the gallery as a gallery, the artist studio as a “rehearsal” space, and the Ballroom as a large sound stage – and the audience will move from space to space for various “scenes.” The Ballroom itself is very flexible and we have just begun to explore various configurations.

Leeser Architecture came up with the design for the building, which seems somewhat conservative compared to their other work. Were they working to type or was it a case of fitting more comfortably alongside neighbouring buildings such as BAM?

The Leeser architectural design was responsive to the needs of the cultural tenants in the building – BRIC and UrbanGlass. The goals of the design were to: 1. Bring physical openness and exposure to our organizations by affecting the building in such a way as to open it up to the outside streetscape, and 2. To create highly flexible spaces that could be used in a variety of ways and would spark a dialogue among BRIC’s three disciplines – performing arts, visual arts and media. This was a bricked-up, very foreboding building and the Leeser design really was transformative in creating a more welcoming exterior that says: “Hey, there’s interesting art and media making happening here. Won’t you come in?”

For a big outdoor venue, I’ve always been impressed with the quality of the sound at the Prospect Park bandshell, what’s the sound system like in the new ballroom? Does it lend itself to a particular genre?

We are proud of the high production values at Celebrate Brooklyn! and thrilled when people notice! We are excited that the acoustics of the BRIC House Ballroom itself are very, very good. Without amplification, there is a nice balance between reflective and absorptive surfaces that combine for a sweet, transparent sound. We installed a state-of-the-art digital sound reinforcement system that sounds excellent for a range of music and both artists and audiences from Burning Spear to The Bad Plus have been commenting on how amazing it sounds.

Brooklyn isn’t short of music venues or art spaces, but most seem to be concentrated around Williamsburg and Bushwick. It’s refreshing to see a new space in a different neighbourhood, what has been the local reaction?

BRIC House is right on the edge of downtown and Ft Greene and is very convenient due to the 11 nearby subway lines, so we are planning to attract both a Borough-wide and local audience. However, it is the local community, within walking distance, that has so much to gain from the opening of BRIC House. We think of it like a library or a park. We are always open and free to just drop in to the gallery, stoop and café; and we are gratified to see so many neighbors already using the space for a morning coffee or an after-work drink, and the weekend drop-in traffic has been far greater than expected.

What have been your favourite shows that Celebrate Brooklyn have put on so far? And who would you like to see at BRIC house?

With 35 years of performances, the “favorite Celebrate Brooklyn! show” list is very long. Here is just a few:

–          (1984) Jazz singer Betty Carter with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra.

–          (1998) Afro-pop singer Baaba Maal from Senegal.

–          (2006) Legendary funk saxophonist Maceo Parker closed his show by brining on his friend Prince (and Prince’s whole band!) for one explosive song.

–          (2009) David Byrne opened the season and played a slew of Talking Heads classics in a kinetic dance party for over 25,000 attendees.

We are working on a bunch of great music shows for winter/spring at BRIC House that I can’t tell you about just yet, but they will include a mix of established and emerging artists in a variety of musical genres. Given how unique BRIC House is and the overwhelmingly positive response from artists, agents and managers, I’d like to also develop very intimate underplays by A-list artists that are capable of playing larger venues. If I were to make up a wish list right now I’d have to include Herbie Hancock, Chris Thile and Jill Scott. Hey, we can dream big, right?

We look forward to hitting up shows at BRIC house soon!

Photo from http://bricartsmedia.org/about/bric-house

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